Romans 12.9–21 Matthew 16.21–28
"Then Jesus told his disciples ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me" (Matthew 16.24).
An authentic Christian life must be marked by the fact of the cross. That is the truth that St Matthew, like all the Gospel writers, wants us to grasp. It is there on practically every page of the New Testament. An authentic Christian life must be marked by the fact of the cross. If we had been allowed to sing this morning, we should almost certainly have used that sombre Seventeenth Century tune Breslau: ‘Take up thy Cross the Saviour said if thou wouldst my disciple be’.
I don’t as a rule go in for visual aids in sermons, but today I have made an exception, and you should all have in your hands an image of an odd little drawing excavated from third century Rome. It is an image from a graffito scratched on a fragment of plaster from the huge palace built on the Palatine Hill by the Emperor Nero. It was found in the Domus Gelotiana, which served as a School for Imperial pages. And it is the earliest image of the Crucifixion of our Lord to have come down to us – dating apparently from the early Third Century.
I guess you may find it as shocking as I did. I can’t remember a time when the Crucifixion did not stand at the centre of my faith, but this representation of it is a piece of deliberate blasphemy – certainly not the work of any Christian hand. Underneath it in crude Greek capitals we read ALEZAMENOS SEBETE THEON, ‘Alexander worships god’ – his God, I suppose was the point, for the creator of this image would certainly not have counted himself among the worshippers. There is the cross with its victim, a human figure with an ass’s head and ears, and little Alexander apparently engaged in a spot of liturgical dance. Schoolboys, then as now, were not always inclined to respect one anothers’ convictions, and this was intended as a deliberate insult to Alexander’s. Another excavation in the same area has yielded a graffito saying simply ‘Alexander fidelis’ – Alexander the faithful – a statement of allegiance commonly used at that time by Christians. Perhaps it was scratched by the same Alexander. But this image, made presumably by one of his fellow-students, is a deliberately blasphemous sneer.
Which was exactly the point of crucifixion in the first place, of course. For crucifixion is a deliberate blasphemy against the dignity of humanity. We are used to later images, in Churches and galleries, made to assist Christian worship, but we too easily forget that the reality was brutal in the extreme, far more so than such spiritual aids would lead us to imagine. Cicero, in a court case in 63 BCE, had this to say:
‘The executioner, and the very word ‘cross’, should be far removed not only from the person of a Roman citizen, but from his thoughts….The very mention of such things is unworthy of a free man’.
Crucifixion had been invented to be a demeaning and barbarous method of execution, the sort of thing that Roman citizens should not even have to think about. You will have noticed that Kirk Douglas died earlier this year, and will remember him perhaps in his great film Spartacus. It told the story of the so-called Third Servile War, a slaves’ rebellion which ended in 71 BCE, when the Roman general Crassus defeated the slaves’ forces led by Spartacus, and no less than 6000 of them were crucified on his orders along the Appian Way. It was a punishment specially reserved for rebellious slaves, who posed a threat to the Empire’s economy, or for political rebels, who threatened the system in different ways.
The great poet Horace, often held up as one of the paragons of Roman civilization, allowed himself to joke in one of his verses about crucified slaves ‘feeding the birds’. But even that thought did not wholly convey the grimness of it. People were not crucified several feet up in the air, but more or less at ground level, where spectators would have the additional entertainment of watching dogs or rats (as well as birds of course) competing to feed on the naked bodies, even before death intervened. And it was a spectacle that might last for hours and even days. As your arms were nailed onto the cross-beam – not through your hands of course, because they would not bear the load, but through the bony part of the wrists – your weight put unbearable pressure on your lungs: death came eventually, not by bleeding (skilled executioners were taught to avoid severing blood-vessels), but by asphyxiation. Your brain would programme you to try to push down with your legs, to make it easier to breathe, but that would only prolong the agony. It was why, in St John’s account, as the sun was about to set on Good Friday, Pilate gave orders that, unusually, the victims’ legs should be broken, to hasten death, so that no-one should be offended by such a sight on the Sabbath.
The Empire that gave the world the Pax Romana, so much admired then and since, rested for its security on this public brutality, as a way of dealing decisively with slaves and rebels. But as Cicero had said, Roman citizens should not be made to think of such things, any more, I suppose, than the inhabitants of imperial London would have wanted to look into their sewers. By the time that Pilate’s orders had been carried out, and the bodies of the dead victims removed, the Empire’s message had been proclaimed with perfect clarity: ‘Look here at this sorry specimen of humanity, whom some people have actually proclaimed as their king! Well, the legionaries have plaited a crown for him alright. We have even put up his title – ‘Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews’. And we have fixed him here to be mocked by the passers-by as an idle threat to Caesar, much as a game-keeper might nail up a troublesome weasel!’ There was a sarcasm there which was more than worthy of the trainee page who would later sneer at Alexander on the Palatine Hill. The idea that such a degraded specimen should have any connection with God! Early Christian writers – Justin Martyr, Tertullian, Irenaeus and such – had to field that question again and again in the second and early third centuries: how should the all-worshipful God be mentioned in the same breath as anything so sordid as crucifixion?
And yet here in our Gospel reading are these first disciples, being told that if they want to follow the Lord they must take up their cross and fall in behind him. St Paul, you remember, had the same message. He tells his Corinthian converts that he had been determined when he came among them to ‘know nothing except Jesus Christ and him crucified’. ‘If ye then be risen with Christ’ he says to the Colossians, ‘seek those things that are above’. But their being risen can come of course only after they have died to self. They were called to the cross-marked life. Christians must be one with Christ in his death and in his resurrection. The four Gospels, it has been often remarked – especially St Mark’s, the earliest of them – read like accounts of that death, with long introductions. They are designed to be inspirations for Christian people called to live cross-marked lives.
Yet in spite of the centrality of the crucifixion to their faith, the Christians of the earliest centuries did not, so the archaeology tells us, use the image of the Crucifixion in their worship. They could bear – indeed, said St Paul and the evangelists, they must bear – to speak of it, but they could not bear to look at it – who could have the stomach for that? And this little piece of scratched blasphemy is the earliest picture to have come down to us. We do not find Christian representations of the crucifixion until practically three hundred years later, by which time Constantine had given the faith the endorsement of imperial power, and abolished it as a punishment in the Empire. So the detail would have been far less familiar by then, but there was no attempt to portray the reality anyway. Christ is represented, in these earliest Christian images, as Lord rather than as victim, usually fully clothed – wholly, you might say, in control of a situation of his own choosing. We have all seen mediaeval and Renaissance paintings in which the crucified Lord, his body still beautiful and unspoilt, looks calmly down on the human grief beneath him.
Today’s Gospel tells us that Peter, almost in the next breath after his confession that Jesus was the Christ, remonstrated with the Lord when he spoke of his forthcoming death in Jerusalem, and received the sternest rebuke that he ever gave to any man: ‘get behind me, Satan!’ Peter knew the sort of death that would be meted out by the powers in Jerusalem, and was sure that God’s Messiah must have nothing to do with such outrages. His mind was set on human things, and not divine – no better than Satan in the Temptations, says Jesus, displaying ‘the kingdoms of the world and the glory of them’ to deflect him from his necessary path.
I have said that archaeologists have not found earlier representations of the crucifixion than this one, but they have found many other Christian remains, even from so early as the first century, when Peter himself led the little Roman Church. There are bas-reliefs of the Lord’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem, for example, and – fifty times as many as there are representations of anything else – cockerels calling to mind the story of St Peter’s denial.
That fact, surely, is extraordinary. You must all have been struck by the oddity that the Apostles, the leaders of the infant Church, are presented to us in the Gospels as such deeply flawed human beings. It is as if Boris Johnson should choose to present us with an account of his first months in office which focussed particularly on Dominic Cummings’s visit to Barnard Castle. But the oddity points us, perhaps, to the reality of the cross-marked lives of the first Christians.
‘Take up your cross and follow me’; some of them, by tradition at least, had to do that quite literally. Peter at length crucified upside down, Andrew on his saltire, James the Great who was the first to be martyred. I wonder whether, like me, part of you does not sometimes feel that we should make a better fist of our discipleship, of presenting cross-marked lives to him, if we were actually confronted with the threat of martyrdom. As it is, we have been called to live out our time in a context, not of hostility, but of indifference, in a world that would not be interested enough to create any new martyrs. When Peter remonstrated with him – ‘Lord, this must never happen to you’, perhaps he felt ready to be part of some forceful rescue operation; he drew his sword, you remember, in Gethsemane. I have always felt that, temperamentally, he might have been ready for such an attempt, even during the trial when he eventually denied him.
But as it was, the Lord would not give him that opportunity; he was not willing to give any chink of encouragement to desperate cries of ‘all for one and one for all’. That would have been too easy. As it was, the Christ, Son of the living God, simply gave himself to being the embodiment of the Father’s love; a course that, in the Roman Empire, could only lead to the Cross. How should Love Unknown undertake at the time of trial some violent demonstration, heroic or not? Human history had more than enough violent demonstrations already. Peter, like many of us perhaps, could imagine one last desperate charge for the cause of truth. He only learnt what a cross-marked life should look like at cock-crow in the courtyard, when he knew that the Lord, being reviled, would not revile in return, that in him there was always God’s offer of forgiveness, even to the lowest pit of brutality of which humanity is capable. No wonder that the Christians to whom Peter was to minister in Rome laid so much stress on that cock-crow, and the need for forgiveness of which it spoke.